The Edward Snowden revelations have provided the public, political class and press in Britain with the best opportunity in a generation to have a wide-ranging debate on state surveillance and its implications. However, while there has been lively -albeit subtly constricted- discourse about the leaks in the United States, prompting President Obama’s recent announcement of reforms, in Britain the issue has suffered from an alarming degree of critical neglect, especially it seems from Members of Parliament.
This is particularly worrying because, by now, it is impossible to deny that a sober and searching national discussion on the issue is necessary. It is axiomatic that the health of liberal democracies relies on, among other things, the successful operation of checks and balances on state power and accountability to the electorate; it should be of pressing concern to those who want to protect the much-invoked “British way of life” that a leviathan surveillance regime appears to transcend these bounds with little oversight.
Should the issue be left unaddressed, that in itself will constitute an indictment of the current state of democracy in this country.
Rather than address the concerns aroused by Snowden’s leaks directly, some commentators have been desperate to change the subject by invoking terrorism and attempting to paint journalists from the Guardian and the New York Times as irresponsible. Liberal voices in the media, including some published in these pages, have downplayed the significance of the exposures, and what little public outrage there was did not last long.
While this has meant that pressure for surveillance reform here has been far more limited than it should be, it is likely that future revelations will add to a weight of evidence that will wreck the last arguments of spy-defenders and fuel further public anger.
I spoke to Glenn Greenwald recently, one of the very few people with access to the material obtained by Snowden willing to talk to other members of the press.
Arguments in favour of the spying programmes, he recounted, “began with [the claim that] they are necessary to stop terrorism, and the more programmes we revealed that had nothing to do with terrorism, that had to be abandoned.
"Then it became there's no evidence of abuse, and now there has been evidence of abuse: there's been evidence of people listening in on old girlfriends... now it's simply become a matter of, well, we need to do this because we will be unsafe if we don't.”
“I think each defence, the more things that have been revealed, has been undermined, and I think at this point the only thing that defenders have left to justify these programmes is that they personally don't feel threatened by them…[but] at the end of the reporting there will be very few people who don't feel personally threatened” he said.
In recent days, Snowden asserted that the NSA has been involved in industrial espionage, an allegation that augments documentary evidence of spying that has no connection whatsoever to “fighting terrorism”; examples of this which Britain’s GCHQ have reportedly participated in include the surveillance of charities, UN bodies, the EU’s competition commissioner and the monitoring of the hotel room bookings of foreign diplomats.
Bearing the above in mind, it is up to Whitehall to offer an adequate response to the evidence of illiberal, possibly illegal practices exposed by Snowden. The government can either stick to their guns, articulating the same vague, generalising and trite defences as those put forward by the spy chiefs last year, occasionally accompanied by threats, or they can respond more honestly to the concerns of the public.
If the government chooses the right path it will help to regain confidence in the security services, something that will surely only help it face the multifarious and very serious challenges of the current age; if it does not, it will help to solidify an impression that has crystallised in the minds of many over the past decade- that the government are more inclined to strategic deceit than public engagement when it comes to sensitive matters of state.